Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Note-walla, Old Delhi

If you're stuck with a torn rupee note, head to the nearest note-walla. You'll see them in many places in Old City, sitting with a display of crisp 10 rupee notes. 

It's not as if there are no formal channels available for the exchange of soiled and mutilated banknotes.  The Reserve Bank of India has provided clear guidelines for it. If a note is old or damaged, you can take it to your bank, have it assessed based on the RBI guidelines, and then changed. Not all notes can be exchanged, especially those which are too brittle or damaged. 

But who wants the hassle of going to the bank and dealing with the bureaucratic procedure? And really, no one has the expertise to assess whether the note meets the Reserve Bank guidelines. So this little note-walla stall works as the instant alternative. It's queue-less, painless, and quick. For this kind of service, people are willing to pay the note-walla a commission. 

Apart from exchanging soiled notes, the note-walla also provides other services. If you have a wedding or other function in the family, and want new crisp notes to gift during the event, you can come to the note-walla. He has a "setting" with his bank clerk, and can get a bundle of new notes for you. If you're a shopkeeper who wants to provide change to his customers, you can get notes in smaller denominations from the note-walla. You can bring a stack of coins and exchange them for notes (a useful service for beggars, I'm sure). If you've been conned with a fake note, you can try asking him for help.

The note-walla's business operates in the grey zone. He has no permits or licenses to do what he is doing. But he meets a specific need, especially among less educated and less privileged people who are outside the formal banking system.

Whenever I see small businesses like this, I feel a sense of admiration for the sharp business instincts that the owner has (maybe because I totally lack this kind of instinct). This man has set up a service business based on his expertise, risk taking ability and negotiation skills, and by providing instant customer service. His stall is a simple wooden box; the hollow inside portion serves as a stool for him to sit. There's a drawer with a set of crisp new currency notes; those are his stock in trade. I'm sure he has to pay off the cops every now and then. It can't be comfortable, sitting like this in Delhi's hot summers and cold winters. But he does it, all through the year, and puts food on the table for his family.